It’s a simple enough question.
What is the problem?
The problem is there is often a problem with the problem question.
Take the film, Moneyball.
In it, Billy Beane, the general manager for the Oakland A’s meets with his scouting team. Three key players have left. They have big roles to find and no more money to do it with.
Grady, the chief scout brings the meeting to order.
“Alright, guys... we had a great year. We won 102 games and we only came a buck short in New York. Now the bad news...we’ve got three big holes to fill. Let’s start with who we like for Giambi. We’ll go around the room. Who do you like, Matty?”
Names tumble forward with the meeting descending into a cacophony of chatter. Each scout jostles to get their thoughts heard.
Billy isn’t liking the discussion. Much to himself as others, he begins to roll his eyes until he can take no more.
A loud thud brings the attention back to Billy. He dropped a book to stop the chatter and looks around the room as he speaks.
“Guys, stop. You’re talking like this is business as usual. It’s not.”
Grady responds with a frown, “We’re trying to solve the problem.”
Billy turns to Grady, “Not like this. You’re not even looking at the problem.”
Grady’s eyebrows rise. He responds. “We not only have a very clear understanding of the problem we now face, but everyone in this room has faced similar problems countless times before.”
Billy’s expression relaxes, “Good. What’s the problem?”
Grady's raised eyebrows drop to form frown lines as he responds.
Everyone in the room is now watching the two with renewed focus. “The problem is that we’ve lost 3 key players that we now have to replace.”
It’s Billy’s turn to frown. “Uh-uh. What’s the problem?”
Now, one of the other scouts intervenes, “The problem is the same as it always is; we’ve got to put a team together with what we’ve got.”
A shake of the head accompanies Billy's reply, "Uh-uh. What’s the problem?”
Everyone frowns. Stolen glances share the uncomfortable feeling now present in the room.
A different scout breaks the awkward silence, “We’ve got 38 home runs to replace, 120 Rbi’s, 47 doubles...”
Billy cuts across him. “Okay, stop. The problem we’re trying to solve is that this is an unfair game. There are rich teams, poor teams, 50 feet of crap and then there’s us. And now we’ve been gutted. We’re organ donors to the rich. The Red Sox took our kidneys and the Yankees took our heart. And now I’m listening to the same old shit about having a good body and being a tools guy like you’re looking for Fabio. Is there another first baseman like Giambi?… Is there?”
Everyone mumbles “No.”
The film lets me use baseball to make my point, although the lesson is applicable anywhere.
Trapped by their own dogma, the scouts only see the problem they want to see. And to solve this problem, they’re looking for like-for-like replacements—even though it’s not possible to achieve.
When Billy meets Peter Brand, an economics graduate working in Baseball, he finds someone who is able to explain the problem.
Peter talks about what he calls medieval thinking in Baseball. His view is more scientific. He tells Billy there is an epidemic failure to understand what’s really happening. It leads to misjudgement and mismanagement of the teams.
He makes the point brilliantly in a tense car park conversation: “The goal shouldn’t be to buy players, what you want to buy is wins. To buy wins, you buy runs.”
The real problem here is more akin to grasping the first principles of Baseball. It is the basic fundamentals of the game.
Obvious, but when clouded with opinion and structure, those principles are hard to see. When you remove the fluff, it gives people like Peter and Billy the ability to apply different frames to find a solution.
As Albert Einstein famously said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.”
The meeting between Billy and his scouts puts into reality the point Einstein makes. Their whole approach was to apply the same logic to solve the problem. Left unchecked, the problem would still be there—and it probably would have cost Billy his job.
So, before you apply the same thinking to solve a problem, make sure you’re solving the right problem first.